A sprain involves tearing of the ligaments which is a band of tissue that connects one bone to another whiles a strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon which is a band of tissue that connects muscle to bone. Sprains can cause severe pain, swelling, discoloration, and lack of mobility. Ligaments in joints heal quickly, and a sprain does not usually require surgery or other intense medical care.
A sprain is usually caused by trauma to a joint. A strain is usually the result of overstretching or overuse of muscles and tendons. These injuries can occur in any body part but are most often found in the lower and upper extremities, such as the ankle, knee, elbow, or wrist. The most common sprain site is the ankle joint.
However, it is important to properly treat a sprain using first aid techniques so you can heal more quickly. Follow the instructions for R.I.C.E.
Rest the affected joint
Firstly, rest is one of the most essential aspects to the healing process and to avoid unnecessary pain from the injury. If you must use the joint, do so with extra caution and support. If necessary, use a sling for an arm injury or crutches for a leg or foot injury. Splint an injured finger or toe by taping it to an adjacent finger or toe. Don’t avoid all physical activity because of the sprain, but avoid direct use of the injured joint for at least 48 hours or until the pain subsides.
Ice the injured area as soon as possible
Secondly, use an ice pack or cold compress, to apply pressure to the injury for up to 3 days until the swelling goes down. Do not apply ice directly to the skin—use a towel or cloth to protect your tissues. Also, re-apply the ice or cold compress every 20–30 minutes throughout the day. Be careful not to use it too long, as this could cause tissue damage.
Compress the sprain with a bandage
This will keep the injured area protected and supported. Wrap the joint lightly around the joint or limb. Use a brace for ankles, which may be more effective than a bandage or wrap. Also look for elastic bandages or wraps to provide the best support and flexibility. Find supportive athletic tape as an alternative to bandages if necessary.
Elevate the injured joint above your heart, if possible
Elevation helps minimize or prevent swelling. Try to keep the injured body part elevated for 2 to 3 hours each day. Sit or lie down with the injured knee or ankle propped up on a cushion. You can also use a sling for wrist or arm sprains to bring the limb above the heart. Sleep with your injured arm or leg propped on 1-2 pillows if you are able to.
Use over-the-counter pain relievers for sprains
These can help with pain and inflammation caused by your sprain. However, avoid aspirin, as this promotes bleeding and can therefore cause complications and extreme discoloration of the skin. Use ibuprofen which is usually recommended for sprains due to it’s anti-inflammatory properties. You can also take acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) products for pain. Consult a doctor or pharmacist for dosage.
Visit a doctor if the injury does not improve within 72 hours or if you experience symptoms of a broken bone. This includes:
- severe pain when the injured part is touched or moved
- continued trouble bearing weight
- more bruising
- numbness or a feeling of “pins and needles” in the injured area
- a limb that looks “bent” or misshapen
- signs of infection (increased warmth, redness, streaks, swelling, and pain)